Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Happened To The 70's?

The completely laid-back teens from the 70's are now running our corporations with an iron fist. What happened to them? Why are they now overly-sensitive to ANY voices that do not march in lockstep with the drumbeat of the corporate galley-slave task masters?

I was a teenager in the 1970s - and the '70s were a time of great contrasts - it was after the drug heyday of the 1960s, yet my high school was full of stoners who got high at lunch - and drug use by high school kids was significantly higher in 1977 than it was in 1967. Being "born again" was the backlash away from the free love generation, and yet in 1975 the incidence of Gonorrhea was 3X higher than in 1965. The 1960s might have taught everyone how to do it, but in the 1970's more of us actually did it. The 1970s gave us Debbie Gibson, Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees, and it also gave us Van Halen, Ted Nugent and Kiss. It was a strange and confusing time to be a teen - but it was also considered relatively stable compared to the turbulent social upheaval of the 1960s and the worldwide economic and political changes of the 1980s.

The teens of the 1970s went on to create Microsoft, Apple & Dell and we also built the Space Shuttle. They powered the economy that destroyed the Soviet Union and tore down the Berlin Wall. In the 1990s, they were the middle managers who created the internet and drove the dot-com explosion. And now, they are the senior executives who run companies with an iron fist - controlling how their employees dress, speak, act and use the very technologies they helped to create. What the hell happened to them? How did they go from smoking pot, listening to Ted Nugent and having sex in their Camaro's (well, probably not Bill, but other kids were!) to now ordering the monitoring of their employee's email messages & Facebook posts, and purging anyone who does not march to the beat of their Armani-suited corporate drum?

I am very worried about the state of our corporate environment. The college graduates entering the corporate world today must be prepared to suppress their individuality for the sake of the corporate brand they now represent. They will be told that protecting the brand is their most important job - more important than any personal belief or idea they may have. Oh, the orders will be shrouded in corp-speak and called an "Employee Handbook", "Statement of Values" or "Social Responsibility" - but make no mistake, the primary purpose for them is NOT to protect the employees - it is to protect the brand FROM the actions of their employees.

Conform or die.

If we quash all individuality and self-expression, we also eliminate creativity and innovation. And that's what has me so confused. Why can't today's senior executives see the danger? Is it as
simple as the old "absolute power corrupts absolutely" adage? Have they really completely forgotten what it was like before they got their preferred parking spot and corporate credit cards? I do NOT believe that only the uptight do-gooders from high school ended up running corporations. That just isn't the way the world works!

Some of you might recognize this situation - it seems to be very similar to the early 1960s, when corporations hired the Mad Men to make sure their brand was see
n only as the corporation wished it to be seen. Of course, it was easier then - there was no internet, no blogs and no youtube that could instantly give anyone's words a worldwide audience. Control the media ads, and you controlled the hearts and minds of the entire world. Unfortunately for the corporations and the Mad Men, the early 1960s turned into the late 1960s - and the corporations became "The Establishment" - hated and shunned by an entire generation.

Is that where we are headed? Another social revolution? It is undeniably true that societal and cultural norms rarely stay constant for very long. We move in cycles - just as the conservatism of the Victorian age led to the Roaring '20s, and the stability of the 50's Happy Days led to the riots and protests of the 60's. I really have no idea what is coming - but I do think we're approaching an inflection point where something will change. Happiness in our jobs and careers is becoming a scarce commodity. We're working harder and longer than at any time since the sweat shops of the industrial revolution gave rise to the labor movements, unions and communism.

I know this sounds very maudlin. It is meant to portray my frustration at the fear & inequality
the average corporate employee (AKA drone)
must currently endure. It appears the old counterbalances of labor unions and entrepreneurial opportunities are weak and no longer effective at limiting the barely legal abuses of the corporate overlords. I'm certainly NOT advocating a return to a time when the unions held huge amounts of power that caused ridiculous inefficiencies in businesses. I believe an employee *should* be paid based on their skill and performance - not only on their years of service or payment of union dues. HOWEVER - when the corporate environment is built to provide all benefits to the top leadership at the expense of their employees, I call BS. That is theft - theft of the employee's skill and hard work without the compensation of job satisfaction and a career path for the employee.

There's no easy answers for this one. The corporate masters will continue to tell their serfs that they should be happy to have any jobs in this time of economic upheaval - and then they will drive home in the Mercedes, Porsches and Maseratis that they bought with their $6 million/year total compensation packages. Meanwhile, their employees are reading the latest email from the CEO telling them that in order for the company to make their forecasts, the employees will have a choice of using 5 days of vacation this month or taking 5 days of unpaid leave.

Let me know when the next generation takes over as our corporate leaders. Maybe the teens from the 80's will do a better job. Then again, maybe not...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Corporate Noose

Yes, I know its been FAR too long since my last post. I wish I had a really good excuse, like my new job has kept me too busy, or I was traveling on important secret business for the CIA - but alas, the best I can do is admit that I've been spending all of my time playing Mafia Wars on Facebook. It's not even a particularly good game - just a completely mindless distraction. But ENOUGH - I am going to try to keep the words flowing. In this case, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Quincy, MA on a business trip - and between the boredom and the two vodkas I had with dinner, I think I am ready for a new installment of "Bumped His Head". The real question is: Are you ready? Too bad - I really don't care either way...

What is the dress code where you work? Do you even have a dress code? If not, you should thank the gods. I do, and it seriously chaps my hide. I consider "Business Casual" one of the greatest evils in corporate America. It represents much that is wrong with the corporate life, and it symbolizes exactly how idiotic and narrow-minded the vast majority of our world's economic & social leaders really are. But first, a little history lesson...

Most of what we consider modern "formal dress" can be traced to European royalty and their courtesans. Probably the man who most influenced man's modern dress was Beau Brummell. Brummell was an Englishman from the late 18th century who is considered the father of English "dandyism". Brummell, who was a friend of the future King George IV, was himself NOT a member of the royal class, but had many associate and friends within the socialites of England & France. In fact, Brummell was most famous for simply being famous, and for being considered the pinnacle of style - which makes him the 18th century equivalent of Paris Hilton.

Brummell was extremely fastidious about his appearance. He rejected the standard breeches, ruffled collars, powder and wigs of the aristocrats and instead introduced a much more understated dress consisting of close fitting trousers, jacket and a complexly knotted cravat. He also meticulously bathed and groomed himself. It was said that he took 5 hours every day to groom and dress himself, which means that I suspect he didn't have a 1.5 hour commute in L.A. freeway traffic. Dandyism eventually became a social & political statement by non-aristocrats against the upper classes. When the middle class could adorn the epitome of style, they were essentially thumbing their noses at the aristocrats.

Fast forward to the present. Today, the perfectly tailored suit, dress shirt and silk tie is the uniform of the corporate elite. The term "The clothes make the man" is more true today than it has been in the last 30 years. But why? Why are the clothes I wear important to my employer? Am I somehow a smarter or more productive employee because of the color of my pants or the length of my shirt sleeves? Does wrapping my neck in a tightly knotted piece of silk cloth make my thoughts and words more important and worth listening to? According to many corporations, the answer is apparently YES. But I say the answer is a resounding HELL NO!

The late 1990's were a great time for the casual dresser. The tech explosion on the west coast meant that employers were more interested in what you knew and what you could produce rather than how you dressed. Jeans, shorts, sneakers and t-shirts were the standard uniform. Then the tech bubble was popped. The tech worker was once again considered an outcast social misfit that needed to be put into their place by their betters in finance, sales and marketing, and part of that return to power was the return of the corporate "dress for success" mindset. Of course, in my view it was not the tech guys who were responsible for the tech bubble and the crash - it was the finance, sales and marketing dweebs who over-leveraged, over-hyped and over-sold the ideas of the technologists. And for doing that great job - those finance, sales & marketing boneheads became the CFOs & CEOs running today's corporations.

Today, we are struggling to recover from a near economic collapse. A collapse primarily driven by those same finance, sales & marketing leaders. This time they over-leveraged, over-sold and over-hyped the insurance & financial industries. And STILL, they remain in positions to dictate the dress codes and social norms of corporate America. Why? I have no freaking clue. Tell me - when were you happier with your job, your life and your financial future - the late 1990's or today? If your answer is the same as mine - you have those captains of industry to thank.

Remember those old episodes of Bewitched and the Dick Van Dyke show? Old Darin Stevens and Rob Petrie wore their gray flannel suits everywhere. They could be just sitting around the house, and they would still be wearing a suit and tie. Even in the 1960s, did anyone really do that? I can't believe they did then, and I know they don't today. When we think the corporate secret police aren't looking, we wear jeans, shorts, sneakers and t-shirts. We have no problem being seen by our neighbors, friends and family wearing casual clothes - and yet on Monday morning we set aside our own preferences to satisfy the whims of the people in the corner offices.

They say things like "We must project a professional business image" and "It shows respect for our customers" - I say: Bullcrap! It's about control - the ability for an executive to dictate and control every employee in a very personal way. That exercise of power gets them off - and it makes them feel better about their own self-doubts. It makes me wonder what those executives are attempting to compensate for - but I'll let you fill-in your own details. They also use the "slippery-slope" argument to claim that if there wasn't a dress code that employees would show up wearing gangsta' baggies, Hitler costumes and G-strings. I have a simple solution to that - how about we simply let people wear whatever they want AND we let everyone else point at the stupid people and laugh derisively? There's nothing like good 'ol peer pressure to weed out the outliers who haven't got the sense to know the difference between casual and idiotic. Let's face it, there are some people that it just doesn't matter what they wear, they will still end up with their picture on peopleofwalmart.com.

To those who say "What's the big deal, it makes your boss happy, just do it!" I say, you're right, how I'm dressed shouldn't be a big deal - in fact, it shouldn't matter at all! I think what we need is collective courage - the courage to stand up, pull off the corporate noose, put on our jeans, and show the task masters that we will take this idiocy no longer. I'm mad as hell, and I don't think you should take it any more! So - lead the charge - convince all of your co-workers that they should dress however they want every day. Tell your boss to pound sand - make them decide whether wearing slacks and a tie is more important than running the business.

And what became of Beau Brummell? His lifestyle eventually caught up with him. He was buried in debt, and he died alone, penniless and insane from syphilis. That's hot!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

High-Tech Worker In A Low-Tech Company, Part Three - The Final Chapter

My good friend Billy Shakespeare dressed weird, but he really knew how to string words together. I sometimes wonder what he would think of blogs, facebook and twitter. I suspect he would have made some hilarious youtube videos. But I digress...

This is the third installment in the continuing remembrances of a high-tech worker in a low-tech company. The first and second chapters were very fun to write, and I hope they were just as fun to read. I suspect this will be the last episode in this theme for a while. As time goes by, the memories (and my brain cells in general) of that period are fading, and quite frankly, I'm simply ready to move on and put that horrendous experience where it belongs - swirling down into the cesspool of my past.

But that's the bad news. The good news is that I *do* have a third episode for your consideration. First, the standard disclaimer:

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, I present the finale to this trilogy:

Doing Nothing *Is* Sometimes The Best Move
The Accounting processes used by corporations can be a bit complex - and that's why they spend millions of dollars to purchase and maintain expensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, and also why they often have large staffs of trained accounting clerks whose sole job is to use the ERP system to perform the transactions for purchasing, order entry, accounts payable, accounts receivable and all the other financial processes needed to run a $2B+ public company.

Or, you could do what my company did...

The primary requirement to be a member of our accounting staff seemed to be the inability to have any desire to learn. These departments included some of the longest tenured employees in the company - including several people with over 30 consecutive years working at the same jobs. I would like to be able to say that this long experience made them valuable members of their departments - but alas, I can't. What it did was make them completely impervious to any attempts to train them on changes to the systems and processes they used every day. We once needed to make a significant change to the ERP system that included several changes to the processes used by the Purchasing department. As part of this project, we partnered with an extremely experienced group of consultants who were experts in the ERP software we used. One of the first steps in the project was to have the Purchasing department step us through all of their key processes and use the existing ERP system to demonstrate what they did on a daily basis.

During one of these sessions, a Purchasing clerk was going through her operations and came to a step that involved submitting a job to be processed and then waiting for it to complete before moving on to the next step. After the job ran, she started to move to the next step, when one of the consultants suddenly said: "Wait - can you please go back and open the log file from the job you just ran?" The Purchasing clerk had a bewildered look on her face and said "What?" After explaining exactly what the consultant wanted the clerk to do, a file was shown on the screen that contained only one line of text. The consultant said: "That's what I thought, you don't need to run that job, it doesn't do anything." The Purchasing clerks (and their manager) were completely befuddled.

The consultant then went on to explain: "Look at the line in that file. It says 'No records found.' That means that job didn't actually do anything. That is exactly what it should say, because that job doesn't need to be run - it is useless." The Purchasing clerk then said: "But I always run that job, that's the way we've been doing it for years." But, she had absolutely no idea why she had been told to run that job, or what she thought it was supposed to do - all she knew was that it was step #10 in the process and she had been doing this dozens of times a day, every day, for 10 years. If we had not needed to make the system changes, she would *still* be running that job. True story!

Be Prepared!
Has there ever been a medical event as completely oversold by the media as the H1N1 Swine Flu? According to the news reports, we were on the brink of a disaster the likes of which had not been seen since the Black Death. Luckily for the human species, the wildfire has not materialized. In fact, to put the H1N1 pandemic into perspective, the CDC says that in a typical year approximately 36,000 people in the US die from flu-related causes - this is for ALL types of flu. To date, 320 cases of H1N1 have resulted in death in the US - much lower than many other strains of flu. Hmm - that doesn't quite sound like the level of mass carnage the media prepared us for during night after night of hyperbole.

Don't get me wrong - I'm very happy that the disaster has not materialized, and I'm all for the CDC making sure we are fully informed - even if the press completely misinterprets the data and turns it into a hype circus. But, the folks in leadership positions at large corporations are smart enough to cut through the BS and focus on the facts, right?

Then there's the company I worked for...

In the midst of the H1N1 media frenzy, I received an email from one of the mindless butt-kissers that was also my peer in middle management. The email wanted to know if we had developed an emergency IT response plan for the Swine Flu. Emergency IT response plan? WTF? Why would a company that runs restaurants need an "emergency IT response plan" for the Swine Flu? What was this, a scene from Andromeda Strain?

Now, let me be clear, the company operated and franchised restaurants. Those restaurants were essentially autonomous - the franchised restaurants could operate indefinitely without any support from the corporate office, and even the company operated restaurants could (and did) easily operate for days or even weeks without any IT support from corporate. But, apparently, a couple of attention whores in the corporate "risk management" department decided this would be a perfect opportunity to boost their own careers by capitalizing on the media hysteria surrounding H1N1. Like Alexander Haig, they wanted to assure the people that "they would be in control" during this time of crisis.

In my 25+ year career, I had never heard of ANY company having an "emergency IT response plan" for an outbreak of the flu. What's my plan? Well, how about this - we tell people to wash their hands and we muddle through with a short staff for a couple of weeks until the flu passes. There - I'm done. But (of course) it was even worse than this.

Apparently, this was not the first time the "risk management" boys had played this game. They had previously responded the same way during the "Avian Flu" outbreak, and they had actually convinced the IT management to prepare an "emergency IT response plan" specifically for an Avian Flu disaster. It should now be pointed out that since 2003 there have been ~300 confirmed deaths from Avian Flu *worldwide*, and *NONE* in the US. Whew - I'm glad those risk management experts are protecting our company from these disasters!

Good grief - this company had been experiencing declining sales for several years and was bleeding cash while executing a never-ending series of failed marketing campaigns. BUT - they were ready with a plan for how the IT department was going to respond in case 25% of their staff got the chills and diarrhea! True story!

I have no deep-meaning lesson to convey from these two stories. In my humble opinion, these were simply stupid people who were tolerated (and promoted) by equally clueless corporate leadership. I believe it is every thinking human being's duty to expose stupidity. I know it can never be eradicated - but it also should never be tolerated. As Bill Engval says: "Here's your sign."

This trilogy of business brainlessness has been fun - and very cathartic. But at the same time, it makes me incredibly frustrated and sad. Every one of the primary characters in the six stories I have presented is still gainfully employed in the same positions they held at the time I had the misfortune to work with them. As you read this, I'm sure they are merrily committing random acts of idiocy and making some other reasonably intelligent coworker do additional work in order to correct the senseless stupidity. My sympathies go out to those poor souls - I feel your pain!

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Only Constant Is Change

My father recently celebrated his 90th birthday. That in itself is a phenomenal achievement, but when you consider that he suffered his first massive heart attack in 1975, you begin to understand just what kind of amazing accomplishment this is. After a quadruple bypass, implanted pacemaker/defibrillator, angioplasty, titanium hip replacement, spinal discectomy and double cataract surgery - he has had more technology put into his body than went into the Dell laptop I'm using to type this post.

My father was born in 1919. Holy time warp - think about the things that did NOT yet exist in 1919. For example, here's just a random smattering of items that do NOT include many of the really HUGE events of this time period:

And that's only the first 20 years! Senior citizens often say that "everything changes so fast now" - but I disagree - I believe the world has *always* changed, and further, it has *always* changed quickly and dramatically - at least since the industrial revolution began in the late 19th century. There is no doubt that the spread of changes around the world is much faster now - our very quick worldwide communications and transportation systems have enabled that rapid spread to occur. However, just because my father was not aware of Robert Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket flight until several years after it occurred did not prevent that event from initiating huge changes to our society that ultimately led to Alan Shepard orbiting the Earth in a Mercury capsule in 1961. I claim that world-changing events have almost always been happening at a rapid rate - we are simply putting them into the common knowledge base much sooner now than we did in the past.

One of the great challenges of my entire adult life has been attempting to explain to my father what I do for a living. Even back in my aerospace engineering days, he really had no idea what an engineer working for a big defense contractor like Lockheed or Northrop actually did every day to earn a paycheck. My father was a farmer and lived on a farm his entire life. He once asked me "Why do you still need to come up with new things for airplanes? Hasn't everything already been invented?" Wow - that one made me pause. How could I explain the endless ways in which new requirements change yesterday's design, or how even small increments in technology could provide new capabilities that could not previously be accomplished, or made reliable, affordable, etc. But when I compare the changes between, for example, the airplane of 1919, with the airplane of 1939, I see MUCH more change than when I compare the airplane of 1989 with the airplane of 2009. In fact, many of the airplanes built in 1989 are still in service today - and the same could probably not be said in 1939 for airplanes built in 1919!

Electronics and computer technology have certainly changed the world. But, can you honestly say those technologies have changed the world MORE than the electric lightbulb or the internal combustion engine or the airplane? I claim no - computers have NOT.

Humans have an incredibly short time frame of reference. We think 100 years ago is a lifetime (and of course it is - in human lives!). But as I discussed in the previous post on our much more successful ancestor H. Habilis, we are barely a blip in the anthropological time scale - never mind the geologic or galactic time scale. But attempting to think along the scale of eons forces our human brains to eliminate the details - we are forced to abstract the timeline such that only scientists such as paleontologists, geologists, etc can do better than "time before the dinosaurs", "time during the dinosaurs" and "time after the dinosaurs". Our puny brains have a terrible time visualizing and understanding anything that can't be measured by our own 5 senses.

But, I really wasn't intending to veer off into the murky subject of our place in the cosmos. Suffice it to say that I follow the Douglas Adams view: "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." We should remember that when we start thinking our own pitiful few years of existence are really critically important.

*IF* I have a 90th birthday, it will be in 2051 - 42 years from now. How much will the world change in the next 42 years? Unlike most pronostigators, I will say both sides of the coin are true - the world will change hardly at all AND the world will also change dramatically. I won't try to make specific predictions. The science fiction world is littered with the evidence of the underachievement of human beings. Remember the campy TV show "Space: 1999"? How's that moon base coming along? And "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Don't even get me started. But, absolutely no one predicted a worldwide, internet-based retail ecommerce industry or even internet porn prior to the introduction of the affordable personal computer. I have no idea what the next 42 years will bring!

What I do know is that my grandchildren will think I am a fossil who simply can't comprehend the world of 2051, and they will also be unable to visualize the ancient world of 1961. At the same time, my children will see the world of 2051 as not all THAT different from their childhood in the late 1990s & early 21st century. That ongoing dichotomy is somehow comforting...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Church Of The Corporate Ladder

It's time to take the gloves off. At the request of a few friends who shall remain nameless (cough *gutless* cough) this diatribe is going to be a bit edgy and address one of the verboten subjects of polite conversations - religion. (pause for collective gasp from the blogosphere) No, I'm not going to debate the relative merits of snake-handling versus self-mortification, I want to talk about the hypocrisy of devout religious zealots who also happen to be part of corporate leadership.

So, first, I'll apologize - if you are a very religious person, you may find some of my comments offensive. Please recognize that I'm not attacking your religion - I am attacking the hypocrites who proudly proclaim their religious beliefs, but are also willing to take out anyone by any means necessary to further their own corporate careers. I freely admit that I am NOT a religious person - 8 years of parochial school saw to that - but I hold no animosity towards anyone who actually lives the teachings of their chosen religion. However, if you are just a wolf using your religion to ambush your opponents - then I suspect your God has a special section of the everlasting fire waiting for your @ss.

Religious corporate leaders really are a strange bunch. I have a hard time understanding how plotting and scheming the downfall of your opponents and your own rise up the corporate ladder fits in with God's divine plan. I absolutely understand how it might fit with the person's master plan. Let's look at the advantages the outwardly religious person might have in the corporate game.

First, there is the obvious - the ability to maintain a holier-than-thou attitude over everyone else in the room. *They* know the *right* thing to do, and anyone who disagrees is clearly aligned with Satan. Maintaining a pious and angelic look on their face is very important in order to pull this off. Of course, there is no outward condemnation of the non-believing heathens in the meeting, but a gentle "I'm not comfortable with the moral ramifications of this approach" is more than enough to get their point across.

They also have the advantage of holding everyone else to a higher standard than they themselves actually operate. They can hamstring their opponents by working behind the scenes on evil plans while constantly pointing out and being outraged at any less than divine actions taken by their foes. This continually puts everyone else on the defensive and makes them less likely to attempt their own initiatives for fear that their plans will not meet the moral standards set for everyone except the devout.

Look at one example - let's say in a fit of frustration you send an email to a co-worker complaining about the latest underhanded trick pulled by the resident religious hypocrite. In that email you drop a few f-bombs and point out a few shortcomings in the hypocrite's genetics. If that email were to somehow make it's way to one of the religious corporate leaders (even if it is not the actual target of your wrath) the outrage and retribution will be swift and overwhelming. You will be accused of being "vulgar" and of having morals lower than a crack whore. It won't matter if you have heard many others (including other religious hypocrites) using the same language or expressing the same sentiment - YOU are now the unclean, heathen outcast who will be declared an evil person by EVERYONE who fears they may someday be the target of the Holy Rollers.

I have absolutely no problem with a company being run according to a set of strict religious beliefs - as long as the rules apply to everyone on an equal basis. I may not choose to work there - but anyone who does knows and accepts the culture. What I cannot stomach is the hypocrisy of a company's leadership that pretends to adhere to strict rules - but only when it suits them, or when they know other people are looking.

I wish I knew of a suitable defense against this particular type of slimy corporate toad. However, I really don't have an answer. The best I can come up with is to simply get as far away from that company as quickly as you can. The senior executives CAN minimize the issue - by simply ignoring the sermons and being willing to tell the devout ladder climber to go pound sand. The only thing the halo-wearing scumbags will respond to is realization that their current path does not get them to the next rung of the ladder. However, if the senior executives lack the spine to stand up and tell the righteous reptiles to knock it off, you are screwed and you need to get out before you are branded with a scarlet letter.

It's been said many times that some of the greatest evil has been committed in the name of religion. I would probably modify that statement to say "in the misuse of religion." There's nothing inherently wrong with the vast majority of religions. If they help you get through the day, great. But when religion is used as a political tool for your own benefit, you are a bloated toad who should be skewered on your own pious pitard.

So - how about it? Do you know a particular jackass that claims to be an elder in his/her church, yet is not above bald faced lies and unethical behavior in order to advance their own career? I would like to hear your story of how a religious hypocrite screwed you over during their rise to divine status in the Church of the Corporate Ladder. Leave me some comments!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

High-Tech Worker, Low-Tech Company - Round Two

A few weeks ago, I posted about a couple of the technology-challenged folks I encountered as a high-tech worker employed at a low-tech company. At the time, I mentioned that I had many more stories to tell, and I have received quite a few requests to post the next set of tawdry low-tech tales. So, here ya go! Once again I will make the same disclaimer that I made in part 1:

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, for part deux:

Spam is the bane of the 'net. It is like the weeds that grow in your garden and in the cracks in your sidewalks and driveways - you can pull it, chop it or spray it and you may be able to control it for today - but it will always be back. There is one flavor of spam that has been around since the very early days of the internet - the fake notifications that tell of "secret" coupons or deals from well known national brands. Many large brands have been targets - including many restaurants, retailers, automakers, electronics companies, etc for anything from free cars (Honda) to free beer (Miller). You've probably all seen some of these, right? Did you ever think any of them were real? Granted, there are occasionally genuine offers that are similar - like this one - but come on, it's just spam, right?

Well, some people apparently take them just a bit more seriously...

One particular Chief Executive Officer was forwarded a well known spam that promised that our company would send a $50 coupon to anyone who forwarded the spam email to them. One of the store franchise owners had apparently been sent this email and wanted to know what the corporate office was going to do to stop it. This CEO immediately tasked the IT department to "stop these emails from being sent." Huh? It's spam! This CEO was dead serious - they thought there was some way for us to intercept and stop these emails from being sent - not just from our company servers, but from every mail server on the internet!

Our explanation that this is not how the internet works, and that there is no central control center we can call to have these emails stopped was met with the classic "you clearly misunderstood my last order - try again" look from the CEO. The head of the IT department eventually had to meet with the CEO and explain that this was not something we or anyone else could control, and that the vast majority of people in the world understand that these types of emails are just annoying fakes. A letter was then drafted and sent to all the restaurant owners, and a notice was placed on the company web site declaring these emails to be fake. I am willing to bet the CEO *still* believes we are just incompetent and there must be some way for those emails to be stopped. True story!

Anti-Social Networking
Internet discussion forums are a great way for people with a common interest to socialize, share knowledge and engage in healthy debate and disagreements. Forums are not new - they are as old as the internet. Many companies are using private discussion forums as a way to share information between employees, or with customers and/or vendor partners. Unmoderated public forums can get extremely unruly - but there are many moderated forums that manage to discuss very contentious issues and remain civil. Most private forums are much easier to manage - because (in theory) the members are all there for the same reason.

And then there is the forum that was built at our company...

The communications department wanted a discussion forum added to our private company portal. The users of this portal included corporate employees, the franchisees and the franchisee's employees. The public had no access to this portal or the discussion forum. Sounds fairly easy, right? There are dozens of free internet forum software packages available, and some of them are used in very, very active public forums. But, a private forum actually has a few unique requirements that are not an issue in public forums. The first is that we didn't want the forum users to have to login to the forum after they had already logged-in to the company portal. Since several of the best portals now support directory services like LDAP or AD, that wasn't a big problem and was easily solved.

However, the communications department and the marketing and legal departments apparently had a completely different view of how a discussion forum is used than I did. They were extremely paranoid that someone might post something that was not favorable to the company. I explained that could be controlled by having moderators police the forums and delete or edit any offensive posts. But that wasn't deemed good enough.

They decided that corporate employees could read the forum, but could not post. That would prevent a corporate employee from saying something that might be construed as putting the company at risk. It didn't matter that the corporate employees talked and emailed to these same folks every day - the forum was deemed "different". All questions asked by the franchisees and their employees would need to be posted by the forum admin who was also a communications department employee. If the forum admin did not know the answer to a question, then they would contact the relevant department, obtain an answer, and then post the forum response.

The brain trust also decided that the forum would ONLY be used for the franchisees and employees to post "Best Demonstrated Practices". If they knew about something that worked, they were asked to post a story explaining it so that the other franchisees could benefit. There was no Q&A forum, no general discussion forum - there were ONLY forums for them to post their tips & tricks.

Can you guess what happened?

Well, since corporate employees couldn't post to the forum, they typically visited the forum once, then left and never came back. Why should they? What fun is a forum unless you can participate? I suppose reading the posts from the franchisees could be interesting, but that leads to the second problem...

The franchisees weren't posting either. It seems that they weren't all that eager to share their "tips & tricks" with each other. They wanted to communicate with each other, and many of them did through email, but there was no way they wanted to post where corporate could see and know who was posting. In addition, since there was really no forum for them to post questions or just have general chit-chat with each other, the entire "social" aspect of the discussion forum was completely missing.

The result? Six months after launch, there had been a total of 6 posts to the entire forum - and that includes the post from the forum admin saying "thank you for your post" to the one guy who actually posted ONE "best demonstrated practice", and also the post from a franchisee who complained that the free item he had received from a franchisee conference had arrived broken. In short, it was a complete failure. The forum software itself worked great - posting was easy and simple. But the many weeks of effort to install, configure and modify the forum software were completely wasted by the desire to have complete control over how people engage in social interaction - completely missing the entire point of web-based discussions. True Story!

Well, there you go - two more examples from my files. Both of these stories share a common trait - the desire to control the uncontrollable. In the first story, the CEO needed to discover that it really isn't possible to control the breadth and speed of worldwide email communications. It shows a complete lack of understanding for how the internet has changed the dissemination of information - which is really, really scary when you consider this was the leader of a $2+ Billion company. The second story is also about control - the desire to control how people communicate with one another, and not recognizing that when you attempt that level of control, people will simply find a different way to communicate in order to bypass the oppresive controls. Don't worry - I have many more stories coming to future posts!

Friday, July 24, 2009

This Is News?

Do you still watch the news on television? I haven't used TV as my news source for several years. However, when something really significant is going on, I have no choice - the news invades into my viewing whether I want to see it or not. They are preempting my entertainment with the drivel they think is news. There are no journalists left in television. Edward R. Murrow must be turning over in his grave. It's hard to believe there was once a time when the news was the trusted source of the truth - and that when a "Special Report" interrupted the broadcast schedule, you paid attention, because the world was about to change. Apparently, we've had some *really* significant events lately, because the news has been blitzing more than Dick LeBeau. Let's run down a few of the earth-shaking news stories that have the entire news industry in a tizzy for the last month...

(Jon & Kate + 8) / 2
This absolutely takes the prize for the biggest non-story. Let's see - family with 8 small children has a film crew follow them everywhere they go for a couple of years, and now the couple is getting divorced. Wow, who could have seen that coming? But somehow, this story was not just plastered on every gossip/media tracking/scandal show - it was also a huge story on the network news. Interviews were shown on ALL of the major news shows, with analysis of who was the unhappier party, what this means for the kids, etc. This is news? Really? According to the U.S. government, 7.5 out of 1000 US residents have been married, and 3.6 out of 1000 US residents has been divorced. Gee, I don't recall seeing any of the other thousands of divorces on the news. Sure, I feel sorry for the kids - who wouldn't - but any divorce involving children is going to impact the kids - this is NOT news! The only part of this story I found interesting was how in the world a guy could hook-up with a mistress when he has 8 kids and there are film crews following your every move. The entire story is sleazy on many, many levels, but wow - that dude was an operator!

David Carradine Was Weird
If David Carradine had fallen down some steps and died, it would have been a page 6 story with a small headshot picture from Kill Bill. If some nameless schmoe had been found tied up and dead in hotel room in Thailand, that wouldn't have made the US news at all - of course, it also probably wouldn't have made the news in Thailand either. I admit this was a weird story - but does this belong on the mainstream news channels? Exactly how does this affect the world economy, or the state of our public schools, or the war on terrorism? OK, David Carradine was even weirder than we could possibly imagine, but I'm no longer surprised by anything one of the Hollywood crowd does. I expect them to be deranged and deviant. It isn't news. Once again, the life and death of a naughty celebrity was somehow considered newsworthy by an industry that pretends to take the higher ground.

We Are The World Of MJ
You didn't think I was going to forget the story that was bigger than the first meeting of the new US President with the leaders of some of the most powerful countries on the planet, did you? What can I say about this spectacle that hasn't already been said 24x7 for two weeks? Nothing. I was a little too young to pay much attention when Elvis died, and I was definitely too young to remember when JFK was assassinated - but from what I can tell the Jacko media frenzy was on par with JFK - even though the actual attendance and personal feelings of the general population for the person were probably much less. In other words, the news did not just report the story - they created it. The JFK funeral was held on November 25, only 3 days after the assassination. The MJ funeral was held 12 days after his death. I admit that some of that time delay was caused by the coroner investigation - but a lot of that time was spent planning the huge media events. Good grief, they flew the leader of the free world's body half way across the country and they had a state funeral attended by over a million people in 3 days! Can you imagine what the modern news services would do with an event on the scale of the death of JFK? That's a frightening thought!

TV news has become yet another reality show. They show us 15 second teasers during prime time commercials to get us to watch the 11 o'clock news. The news reporters look for the most entertaining witnesses to interview, and if they can't find a scared child, a sobbing woman or a angry man, the reporters will interview each other. Celebrities increase the value of any story, and the more outrageous the situation, the more coverage it will receive. So, now we have reality shows pretending to be news, and we have nightly news pretending to be reality shows. Thank goodness for the invention of the DVR!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

(With apologies to Robert Heinlein) 40 years ago today humans accomplished the greatest engineering feat since that first bronze-age inventor learned that round objects make moving things easier. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 lunar module on the surface of the moon. Mankind had reached across the emptiness of space and walked on land not attached to their home planet. The Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, Hoover Dam - they all pale in comparison to this achievement. It makes me proud to be a member of the human species, and to have been fortunate enough to have been alive when it happened. I have no doubt that this event, and the entire space race of the 60's & 70's are directly responsible for my decision to become an aerospace engineer.

And so, I hope you will understand why I take it very personally when I see that the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 has also brought out some of the most ignorant humans I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. I am, of course, talking about the conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the US government and maintained for the last 40 years. Believe it or not, these mental midgets have not only been around since shortly after Apollo 11, but they have thrived and grown dramatically in the internet age.

I'm not going to use this medium to show and debunk their claims - there are many, many sites on the web on both sides of this issue. Instead, I would like to discuss these clowns from my own cynical viewpoint, and give a little explanation of why I am personally offended by their obnoxious ignorance. I will say this much - every single one of the "inconsistencies" they claim as evidence of the hoax is complete and utter nonsense. They have absolutely no understanding of basic physics, engineering or the space program, and there is NO credible basis for any of their claims. We absolutely DID land on the moon in 1969!

I was recently on a well-known audio discussion forum where a thread was started that asked members to vote whether they thought the moon landing had been faked, and to then state why. Over the next several days I debated post-for-post with some people who were adamant that it was all an elaborate government conspiracy and hoax. The poll results indicated ~18% of the 180 respondents believed the moon landings were fake. As usual with lies, d@mn lies and statistics, I think those poll results do not really represent what they seem to show. Don't forget that an internet poll is not truly random. It would be heavily skewed toward representing those people who have strong enough feelings about the subject to actually cast a vote. What the results really mean is: ~18% of the forum members who were interested enough in the belief of fake moon landings voted that the landings were a fake. But what that discussion did clearly show me was some of the fallacies and misdirected ignorance that is prevalent in our "modern" society. It was really an incredibly depressing display!

One of the very surprising observations was just how incredibly close-minded the conspiracy crowd can be. They are very willing to put forth a claim of evidence of the hoax, but when their own evidence and very basic scientific principles are used to debunk their claim, they will simply ignore your counter-claims and dismiss your use of science as your own opinion. They simply cannot be convinced to see anything other than their own beliefs. No amount of logic, physics, experimental results or mathematical proofs will cause them to waiver in their basic belief that the conspiracy exists, therefore anything counter to that belief must be part of the conspiracy. They have boxed themselves into a corner, and their own ego-driven paranoia will never let them out of that position.

It also became very clear that one of the reasons that they could hold so tenaciously to their beliefs is because they are simply ignorant of basic physics and engineering. For example, one of their claims is that the many photos and videos taken during the moon walks could not have been accomplished, because the "surface temperature" of the moon can reach up to 250 deg F, and that would have melted the film used in the cameras. There is a simple explanation: the moon is not like the Earth. The moon is airless. On the Earth, the "surface temperature" heats the air above the surface through both convection and radiation. The air and the earth's surface are in contact, and that quickly heats the air to very nearly the surface temperature. Anything located in the air is then heated by the air via convection, as well as by the radiant heat from the direct sun and the surface reflections. But that is not the way it works on the airless moon. Since there is no air, there is no convection heating. The camera is heated only by the radiant heat from the surface and the sun. By insulating the camera, and keeping it out of the direct sun and not in direct contact with the surface of the moon, the astronauts were able to keep the film from becoming too hot. In fact, the cameras contained temperature sensors so the astronauts could make sure they did not have problems. But the hoax believers would NOT accept this explanation. They refused to acknowledge the difference between convection and radiant heating. Why? I think it is because they are simply ignorant of the basic concepts of heat transfer that are taught to every first year physics student. Since they did not have this basic knowledge, they could not understand the counter argument. Once again, their own ego-driven paranoia prevented them from recognizing that physical principles may exist that are outside their level of understanding.

It is precisely this ignorance of their own limitations that makes me the most frustrated and depressed. No one can explain to them how a complex problem can be solved with engineering and science if they are unwilling to learn the engineering and science! If I say that acceleration is the second time derivative of distance, should they believe me? My statement is true, and I could show it by experimentation, but linking the experiment to the math requires that THEY (not me) understand the concept of a time derivative, and that requires them to understand the first chapter of any calculus text book. If they aren't willing to learn these concepts, then they will never be convinced, because any explanation will ALWAYS be just words that can be doubted. Peeling away the rhetoric, we find a basic problem - they do not believe that a properly trained engineer may be able to solve a problem that is too complex for they themselves to understand. Good grief, how egotistical is that?

Consider a few of these questions:
  • Can an engineer design a way for the human eye to see a person sitting in a completely dark room?
  • Why does a shower curtain get sucked *in* to the bathtub when taking a shower?
  • Is it possible for an engineer to design an object that can be heated to 1000 deg C and then picked-up with your bare hand a few seconds later?
Could you answer these questions? If you couldn't, does that mean these problems cannot be solved and that anyone who claims otherwise is part of a conspiracy to defraud you?

In order, here are the answers:
  • Absolutely - it could be done easily using an infrared sensor. The person sitting in the room would be much warmer than the surroundings, and the sensor could easily pick them out.
  • This is actually a bit tricky. When I was in college, I was taught that it was due to the Bernoulli Effect. In 2001, a physicist created a computer simulation demonstrating that the Bernoulli Effect did not fully explain the lower pressure, and that there is also a vortex effect due to the swirling droplets. Either way, like many things in the real universe, this simple phenomenon has a not so simple explanation.
  • You betcha - this is exactly how the space shuttle tiles are designed to operate.
There are plenty of things that I don't understand that I take for granted because I trust that other, smarter people *do* understand those things. I like to think that I *could* understand most of them if I really tried, but I certainly would never think they can't exist just because I do not understand them. I don't know how an LCD monitor works, but that doesn't stop me from believing in laptops. I also don't know how or why a plant uses Nitrogen, but that doesn't stop me from believing that fertilizing my lawn will make it greener. The guy at the nursery store said it would, and I believed him and bought the fertilizer. The size of the problem shouldn't matter - I either believe others can solve complex problems that I don't understand, or I don't. But it's up to me to make the effort to learn!

The people who say we could never have landed on the moon are saying that all of the engineers and scientists who accomplished this incredible feat are frauds and that they were not smart enough or talented enough to have done it. That is personally insulting and simply another example of their own gargantuan egos. Solving complex problems is what engineers and scientists do - and they absolutely did it in this case. The incredible amount of new technology that came out of the space program is staggering. Astronaut James Lovell said it very well when he was asked about Bill Kaysing, one of the first moon hoax kooks:
The guy is wacky. His position makes me feel angry. We spent a lot of time getting ready to go to the moon. We spent a lot of money, we took great risks, and it's something everyone in this country should be proud of. - James Lovell

D@mn Skippy! So, on this day, be proud of what we once accomplished. Do not let the wacky conspiracy kooks take this day away from you. Finally, go out and hug an engineer - there's no telling what they may come up with next!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The High-Tech Worker In A Low-Tech Company

It's my birthday, and on this auspicious and historically significant day, I am taking the opportunity to vent a little. Given my luck, *this* will probably be the post that causes my career and life to go up in smoke - but what the heck - it's my birthday!

My career has taken me into both high-technology (aerospace & electronics) and low-technology (restaurant) companies. Although they each have their challenges, I must say that being a high-tech worker in a low-tech company was without question the more frustrating experience. There were many days when I was ready to pull out what little hair I have left. I didn't realize how many assumptions I was making on a daily basis until I was faced with an entire industry of people who had zero experience and understanding of the technology surrounding them. It's not that they were stupid (well, not most of them) but they were ignorant - and they were making just as many assumptions about my world as I was about theirs.

Disclaimer: Both of these stories are true and personally witnessed by yours truly. None of these are reposts from Snopes or anywhere else. Any similarity to stories you may have read elsewhere should be chalked-up to the fact that there are idiots everywhere and our species is doomed.

Now, for two entries from the all-star list of forehead slappers from my 5+ years as a high-tech worker in a low-tech company:

Shortcut To Nowhere
I'll start with one my favorites - the infamous desktop shortcut to nowhere incident. One of the accounting clerks was responsible for verifying that a step in the monthly close process had completed successfully. The verification consisted of opening a report generated by the ERP system and making sure the totals tied together. She wasn't responsible for running the job that created the report - just for reading the report and verifying the results. She did this process on the third Tuesday of every month, and had been doing it for over 10 years.

However, on this particular third Tuesday, she had a big problem. We received a frantic phone call from her manager that the ERP system was "messed up" and that we couldn't complete the monthly close. Oh crap! She said she was getting an error message saying something about a file being missing, and she wanted to know why we had deleted her files. Wha??

We checked the server - and everything looked fine. So, we visited the user. After enduring the typical "Why do you guys always change things without telling us?" (we don't) and "If you don't fix this you are in big trouble!" (what else is new!) She finally showed us her problem. She went to her desktop, double-clicked on a Windows shortcut and got a Windows error. "See!" she said indignantly, "It does that every time!" After pausing for a moment, I said "Umm, you aren't in the ERP system? What is that shortcut supposed to do?" She looked bewildered, then said "What's a shortcut?" OK, obviously I wasn't going to get anything else useful from her!

The shortcut pointed to a file located on the shared file server. That file wasn't at the location specified in the shortcut. The user said "It always worked before". We now started a search of the file server to see if we could find the file - and we also began questioning other users about the file.

Eventually, we pieced together the answer. The missing file was an Excel report created by a batch job in the ERP system. That job is manually run on the third Monday of every month by another accounting clerk in a different department. She was sick on Monday. Her manager had submitted the job, and had run the job with incorrect inputs and the job had failed. Since the job was written to first delete the old file then create the new file - well, you can guess the rest...

That batch job had been written by a developer who had left. The accounting department ran the job but they had no idea what the job was supposed to do. An IT tech had created the desktop shortcut to the report many years ago because the accounting clerk kept forgetting how to open the Excel report. She had no idea what the shortcut was for, all she knew was that she was supposed to double-click on that icon on her desktop on the third Tuesday of every month. True story!

Executive eMail
My second story moves up to the top of the food chain to a CEO. You really can't get any more low-tech than this senior executive. Can you imagine someone in business today who doesn't use a computer at all? No email, no web - nothing. Oh, you can send the CEO an email, and you may even get a response - but the CEO didn't use a computer or Blackberry or any other electronic device to do it. Here's the process used by an industry leader running a $2B+ company:
  • An email arrives at the CEO's inbox.
  • One of the CEO's two Executive Admins located at the corporate office opens the email and prints it out.
  • The printed emails are then delivered to the CEO - and since the CEO is often traveling, the printed pages are usually delivered via overnight shipping to wherever the CEO happens to be. If the Admin determines it is an urgent message, the email may be faxed to the CEO, or even read over the telephone.
  • The CEO receives the stack of printed emails and hand writes a response on each page. It is not unusual to see her reading and writing responses during meetings.
  • The stack of responses is shipped back to the corporate office via overnight mail.
  • One of the CEO's Executive Admins reads the handwritten response and types and sends a reply email.
  • You receive your reply "from" the CEO.
The number of things wrong with this picture are simply mind-boggling. That quick note you sent to the CEO resulted in a piece of paper being flown across the country and back again! So much for email being a greener alternative to the paper memo! Did you really believe the confidential email you sent the CEO was private? Guess again - it was also read by at least one Executive Admin and whoever else handled the printed email and the written response. Did you think sending an email might get the information to the CEO quickly? Nope - your email is subject to the whims of the shipping companies - and the location of the CEO and the weather along the route. But even more than these practical aspects - this is just wrong - a low-tech zone has been created around the CEO like a protective bubble. The rest of the world is rushing forward to make electronic communications faster, more secure and full of rich media - but this CEO is pretending that the technology clock has stood still since 1978.

What chance did an IT professional have in a company run by this CEO? How could an ERP upgrade or an increase in data bandwidth be explained such that this senior executive would understand the importance and impact to the company? The answer is 1) none, and 2) you can't. True story!

Trust me - these two stories are just the tip of the iceberg. I think I'll save the rest for future posts - this garden is simply too fertile to harvest all at one time.

There are plenty of corporate IT stories about silly users on the web. But why? The personal computer has now been around for 30+ years. My 90 year old father reads email and can use a laptop touchpad well enough to play solitaire. And yet, there are still professional employees in large corporations who avoid technology whenever possible and see absolutely no reason why they need to do anything differently than they did before some IT geek placed a PC on their desk. Is this only a phenomenon of the low-tech business? No, of course not - but in my experience a company that has a large number engineers & scientists has much less tolerance for this kind of nonsense. There were plenty of challenges for an IT professional working in a company full of techies, but at least I never had to worry that my users didn't know how to use a mouse.

So, call me a typical arrogant IT geek - but if you were able to logon to your computer, start your browser and read this story, then it's a good chance I'm probably NOT talking about you!